Licensed To Thrill? is my new video series looking back at licensed video games based on movies, TV shows, celebrities or brands. Though it’s a video series, you may be more of a reader than a watcher so there’s a written version after the jump.
It’s Halloween, that time of year where people lock their doors and turn all the lights out so they don’t have to spend a tenner on a box of sweets and hand it out to kids dressed up as Frozen characters.
It’s also an excuse for gamers to dig out their favourite scary games. As you read this, many a copy of Resident Evil 4 or Silent Hill 2 are getting dusted off and eagerly jammed into consoles all over the world.
For this though, the first instalment of Licensed To Thrill, I’ve decided to go way back to the dawn of home gaming to show you two titles that may just be the first ever licensed games based on horror movies. Before that though, some background.
Charles Band was a film director, writer and producer, mostly of low-budget horror B-movies. These days he’s best known among shitey horror fans (like me) as the founder of Full Moon Features, the independent B-movie studio behind the likes of Puppet Master, The Gingerdead Man and Evil Bong.
Yes, I’m serious:
Back in the early ‘80s though, before Full Moon, Band owned another production company called Empire Pictures. Under Empire he released a bunch of cult horror favourites in American cinemas, including Re-Animator, Dolls and Sorority Babes In The Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. Still serious.
When the home video craze kicked off and people started buying VCRs, Band formed a home video publishing arm of Empire and called it Wizard Video.
Wizard specialised in getting the rights to the weirdest and most controversial horror films from around the world and releasing them on VHS for American horror fans to enjoy.
All manner of grim and gory movies were released on Wizard Video. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Willie Nelson’s Fourth Of July Celebration, The Driller Killer… that sort of thing.
But Charles Band didn’t stop at cinema and home video. In the early ‘80s he decided he’d try his hand at the gaming market, setting up Wizard Video Games.
Since he already had the film distribution rights to a bunch of horror movies, Band decided he would try to get licences to make games based on some of them.
The first Wizard Video Games release was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which came to the Atari 2600 at the end of 1982. Billed as “the first violent video game”, hopes were high that its controversial nature would result in big sales.
Chances are you already know about the film. Tobe Hooper’s low-budget horror about a cannibalistic family living in the middle of nowhere took the cinema world by storm, resulting in this little $80,000 movie making over $30 million at the US box office alone.
Despite not actually showing any gory bits – it’s all implied – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre gained a reputation as one of the most graphically disgusting movies ever made. So did the video game version successfully reflect this?
The Atari 2600 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn’t actually have you running away from Leatherface, the film’s main villain.
Instead, it puts you in control of Leatherface himself, chainsaw and all, as he roams the Texas countryside looking for teenagers to carve into tiny pieces.
It turns out Texas in the early 80s was messy as fuck, because this endlessly looping tract of land is littered with cow skulls, fences, wheelchairs and what the instruction manual reliably informs us are ‘thickets’.
It’s up to you to avoid these obstacles (or cut through the thickets) and use your chainsaw to kill any hapless wankers who happen to be in your vicinity.
Here’s the thing, though. You can already tell just by looking at it that this game is stunningly realistic. Well, this also extends to your chainsaw, which only has a limited amount of fuel. Three tank-fulls, to be precise.
Using the chainsaw causes the fuel to drop sharply, but even when it’s idle it’s still using up a wee bit.
Yes folks, this is a time-based game, the aim being to kill as many people as you can and score as many points as possible before all three fuel tanks run out and, as the manual puts it,“one of the survivors returns to kick Leatherface in the pants”.
It sort of goes without saying but the Atari 2600 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is shite. It’s repetitive, it’s boring and ultimately there’s no excitement in being so overpowered: it would have made far more sense to play as a teen running away from Leatherface.
I will give it credit for one thing, though – its title screen charmingly tries to recreate the iconic camera flashes from the film’s intro sequence. The result is about as authentic as a football shirt bought off a Chinese guy on eBay but that’s more down to the technology at the time.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre wasn’t exactly a top seller. Because it was a game with a questionable subject matter aimed at adults, most shops refused to sell it and those who did insisted it on hiding it behind the counter, only taking it out for customers who requested it by name. Because of this it became a rare game, and finding a complete version these days with the box and instructions is bloody hard.
Not put off by this though, Charles Band decided to try again the following year with another Atari 2600 game based on another iconic low-budget horror film – Halloween.
There were slasher films before Halloween, just like there were zombie films before Night Of The Living Dead, but John Carpenter’s masterpiece was the one that wrote the rulebook and inspired countless imitators.
In it, a young Jamie Lee Curtis plays Laurie Strode, a teenage girl babysitting a couple of kids on Halloween night.
Problem is, she’s been targeted by the evil Michael Myers, an escaped mental patient who’s returned to his hometown of Haddonfield and decided it’s a good night to stab seven shades of pish out of everyone.
Learning the mistake it made with the Texas Chainsaw game, Wizard turned the tables for Halloween and made sure you were in control of the teenager, not the killer.
Playing as Laurie (or just ‘the babysitter character’, as the manual puts it), you’re stuck in a massive sixteen-room house along with Michael Myers and an unlimited supply of children.
It’s up to you to gather each kid, one at a time, and take them to one of the safe rooms in the house.
Of course, it isn’t quite as easy as that, because your man Myers is also roaming around, and he’s looking for somewhere to stick his knife.
Like most games of its time, Halloween’s controls feel a bit ropey these days. Sometimes you lose control of the kid without meaning it, and sometimes they just outright disappear, which isn’t ideal.
But the whole thing’s worth it for its unnecessarily gory deaths – not just when Michael Myers kills you, but also when he kills a kid. That’s right, the Halloween video game actually let you see small children getting stabbed. Ooft.
Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before it, the Halloween video game’s sales suffered from the same problem – namely, the reluctance or outright refusal from retailers to stock it.
After just two releases, Wizard Video Games closed down before it had the chance to release its third game, based on erotic spoof Flesh Gordon. Now that would have been interesting.
As for Charles Band? Well, he’s still on the go, as is his awesome B-movie studio Full Moon Features. He just recently announced the next films in the Full Moon family, Killjoy: Psycho Circus and Evil Bong: Hi-5.
So while his brief experiment making horror video games didn’t quite go according to plan, it’s good to see he’s still doing what he does best.
Want to see more of my video reviews? Then it’s a bloody good job I have a ‘videos’ tag on this site so you can see all the ones I’ve made so far.